Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Grumpy Mom Rant #1 - Textbooks

“It’s here! It’s here! That shocking time of year..." And I don’t mean May, as do the Camelot lyrics I’m quoting. I mean that wrath and insanity-inducing, checkbook-depleting, twice-yearly time when textbooks must be obtained for my college aged children.

As someone fairly well informed about how the publishing industry works, I feel I can state with some authority that the price of textbooks is unreasonably high. As someone who’s been purchasing textbooks for my kids for at least 14 years, I can also state that, even though book prices in general have risen over the years, the price of textbooks is disproportionately high. In fact, my recent research has shown that textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation during the past two decades (GAO report, 2005)

Someone is making money here, and it’s probably not the authors.

Textbooks are, in fact, Big Money for the publishing industry, and getting bigger all the time.

Back in days of yore, when my first experiences of textbook buying began, I was stunned at the price of new textbooks. The used books offered by the college bookstore were a much better deal, so that’s what we went for. But within a couple years those prices were escalating too. I think my moment of truth came the day my oldest daughter brought home a ragged, dog-eared, 2 ½ inch thick English textbook, its paper cover nearly falling off, and told me it had cost her $40. And this was just one of several texts required by the class. My ire increased when, at semester’s end, she told me she’d only opened it a few times; there were only a few reading assignments from that book. My ire filled to overflowing when she sold it back to the bookstore and they gave her a mere $12 for it, but planned to resell it for $40.

Students are a vulnerable class of people—usually struggling to make ends meet and going into piles of debt to get their education so that they can carve out a future for themselves. To grow and prosper our society needs intelligent, educated, self-supporting citizens. To become such, people must go to school. To go to school one must acquire the requisite textbooks. The scamming of students by absurd and inflated textbook prices is shameful. Students are our future; taking advantage of them is dishonorable and inexcusable.

There are many ways in which students are scammed by the Textbook/Education industry. The constant need for the ‘New Edition’ is one of them. New editions of many textbooks come out every year or two, and of course, it’s usually the newest edition that’s required for the class. While in some cases the appropriateness of new editions is understandable—such as in subject areas where things change rapidly (technology and some of the sciences come to mind). But there are other subject areas where these frequent new editions are simply ridiculous. Basic math processes haven’t changed much over the years. English grammar rules are still pretty much the same as when I was in high school. Early European or American history haven’t changed much either. But I think you get the picture....

To be fair about this, and put the blame where it belongs, sometimes the professors have no choice. The publishing house, in its infinite wisdom/greed, will simply decide to print a new edition, and to “out-of-print” the old edition.

Often the new edition is new because a few words or essays or math problems have been added or subtracted. Sometimes it’s a ‘new edition’ because all the latest bells & whistles — in the form of CDs, InfoTracks—and the like have been added.

Publishers often say that this is done at the request of teachers, but that brings up another interesting question — Exactly who IS really writing these textbooks that we pay so much for?

A recent article by Betsy Anglert states that in many cases, “Authors and academicians whose names appear on the textbook cover do not pen what is within.” She went on to assert that many textbooks are ghostwritten, and the works of “dead authors” are often used. Even in cases where the authors whose names appear on the book’s spine actually *did* write the original text, ghostwriters, freelancers, and in-house-writers are often brought in to do the revisions, which then continue to be presented as work of the original authors. Sometimes the original authors get to review these revisions before publication, but often they do not. Authors cost money, you know.

The article contained many things that textbook ‘consumers’ will find of interest, so rather than droning on any longer, here is the link. Read it for yourself.


Some professors have tried to sidestep some of the textbook issues by writing their own texts and selling them directly to their students. One of my daughters bought such a book for a math class some years ago; it was reasonably priced and had been copied off at Kinko's.

On the other hand, sometimes even professors get greedy. A few weeks ago one of my sons signed up for an online math class, for which no textbook was listed on the school bookstore site. A few days before the start of the semester he received a letter from the teacher. She stated the textbook for this class could be obtained only from her—at a cost of $90—and only at the class’s first in-person meeting, which was the following week. She stated that the textbook could not be purchased used, nor could it be resold at the end of the semester. Nor could it be returned if the shrinkwrap had been removed. All copies had to be purchased directly through her at all times, despite the fact that in another part of the letter she let it slip that the course of study was nearly identical to the one of the previous semester so the previous semester's book would have worked just fine.

Can you spell G-R-E-E-D?


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